From Oregon to California to New York, LGBTQ Democrats who almost won their congressional elections last year are teeing up rematches with the Republicans who beat them.
Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a former engineer and local politician from Oregon, announced in July that she was running for Congress again, setting up a likely rematch with Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-Ore.), whose narrow victory last year flipped the state’s 5th Congressional District for Republicans for the first time in more than two decades.
In May, Will Rollins — whose race with Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) was so close that Rollins was notified of his loss while attending new member orientation last year — launched another bid for California’s 41st Congressional District.
And former Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), who lost his New York House seat in last year’s primary to Rep. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.), launched a campaign to reclaim his former seat in July.
“I’ve learned a lot since last year, and there’s some things that we did really well that we’re going to keep doing and some things we could have done better,” McLeod-Skinner told The Hill in a recent interview. More of her campaign’s energy this time around will be dedicated to fundraising, for instance, she said — a likely response to the influx of outside cash that helped Chavez-DeRemer eke out a win in 2022.
In July, just one day after announcing her candidacy for Oregon’s 5th District, McLeod-Skinner’s campaign announced it had raised more than $100,000, which the candidate said is a clear sign that “people are really excited about me running again.”
Still, she’ll have to compete against heavy financial support for Chavez-DeRemer, who has so far outraised her opponents by a wide margin, according to recent filings with the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
The Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC linked to House Republicans, last year spent millions of dollars on ads supporting Chavez-DeRemer in the district, which stretches from liberal southern Portland to more conservative central Oregon — where McLeod-Skinner lives with her wife, Cass. At least one of the ads went after McLeod-Skinner directly.
This cycle, McLeod-Skinner said, “we’ll hit back when attacked.”
“There’s a thing called ‘Oregon Nice,’” she said, referring to the enduring stereotype that Oregonians are disproportionately more polite than Americans from other states. “But when attacked, I will have a timely and strong response to it.”
McLeod-Skinner added that she plans to use Chavez-DeRemer’s status as an incumbent — which typically comes with a unique set of hurdles for nonincumbent challengers — to her advantage.
“She was able to make a lot of promises last year, but now she’s got a voting record,” McLeod-Skinner said. “Her focusing on the culture wars rather than focusing on problem-solving is something that we’re already seeing Oregonians and voters respond to.”
Chavez-DeRemer in Congress this year co-sponsored legislation to bar transgender women and girls from competing on female sports teams and supported another measure in the House that would require schoolteachers to consult parents before a student is allowed to change their name or pronouns.
In June, a group of LGBTQ students at Central Oregon Community College in Bend protested the college’s selection of the congresswoman as its 2023 commencement speaker, citing her support of both bills.
McLeod-Skinner, who is openly gay, said Chavez-DeRemer and House Republicans’ records represent just how critical it is for LGBTQ people to be fairly represented in Congress. At least 25 more openly LGBTQ members — 20 in the House and five in the Senate — are needed to achieve equitable representation, according to the LGBTQ+ Victory Institute.
“It’s a remarkable thing when you have a vote and you have a seat at the table,” McLeod-Skinner said. “That really matters, and I think it matters very broadly for communities who do not feel heard.”
Down Route 101 from Oregon’s 5th, Rollins, a former federal prosecutor in Southern California, hopes to join McLeod-Skinner in bolstering LGBTQ representation in the next Congress.
Rollins lost his bid for California’s 41st Congressional District last year to Calvert, a 30-year incumbent Republican, by just a few thousand votes, which Rollins has attributed to low Democratic voter turnout in the midterm election year.
“We still were able to come within about 4 points,” he said of last year’s narrow loss to Calvert, “which I think says a lot about our cross-party appeal and our ability to win independents.”
California’s 41st, formerly represented by Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) — a co-chairman of the Congressional Equality Caucus and one of 10 openly LGBTQ members of the House — shifted toward Democrats last year after redistricting, when it picked up Palm Springs and its large LGBTQ population. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report last month shifted the race’s rating from “lean Republican” to “toss up.”
This time around, Rollins said his campaign intends to increase its presence on the western side of the district, which includes Calvert’s hometown of Corona and where Democratic turnout was lowest last year.
It’s also where the district’s media market is at its most expensive, Rollins said, meaning more campaign resources will need to be diverted toward things such as ad spending in those areas.
“Where the media market is much more expensive, people didn’t get to see the contrast between me and my opponent,” Rollins said. “And where that contrast wasn’t as clear, the turnout was much lower.”
“But in the Coachella Valley, where there’s actually a much less expensive media market, that contrast was very clear, because we could afford to communicate our message, and we beat [Calvert] pretty decisively,” he added.
More than a dozen super PACs, national party committees, nonprofit organizations and other noncandidate groups in 2022 spent more than $900,000 on the race for California’s 41st, with most of that spending in support of Rollins.
House Majority PAC, a super PAC aligned with Democratic House leadership, in April pledged to spend $35 million on competitive races in California this year, triple what it spent on races in the state in 2022, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Rollins is no stranger to setbacks. As a teenager, his plans to join the military in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 were derailed by his fear of being outed as a gay man and discharged under the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. But Rollins eventually made his way to the Justice Department as an assistant U.S. attorney, where he focused on counterterrorism and counterintelligence cases.
“I think that story resonates with people across party lines,” Rollins said. “I do think that voters have respect for people who have tried to make an impact, despite some of our country’s imperfections.”
“Most of us agree that what makes America exceptional is not that our country is perfect; it’s the quest to make it more perfect,” he continued. “That is the American story. That is something that LGBT candidates have a really unique ability to highlight.”
Across the country from Rollins, in New York, Jones, who made history in 2020 as one of the first openly gay Black men elected to serve in Congress, is attempting to overcome a setback of his own.
Jones served New York’s 17th Congressional District for a single term before moving to Brooklyn to run in the 10th District, after redistricting in 2022 put him and former Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney — who is also openly gay – in the same district. Jones ultimately lost to Goldman in a crowded Democratic primary with just over 18 percent of the vote.
In July, after moving back to New York’s 17th, Jones announced another run for his former New York House seat. He faces a Democratic primary against Liz Whitmer Gereghty, a former small business owner and the sister of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D).
Both Democratic challengers are vying to defeat Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.), who unseated Maloney in last year’s midterm election.
As a former congressman, Jones has an advantage over Gereghty, who is relatively new to politics. And he’s already racked up a number of considerable endorsements, including from the Equality PAC, the campaign arm of the Congressional Equality Caucus, and Rep. Pat Ryan (D-N.Y.).
An internal poll shared with Politico last month showed Jones with a 35-point lead over Gereghty. His campaign did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.